Friday, August 7, 2009

Tennyson's Farringford Library Restored

"...Take it and come to the Isle of Wight:
Where, far from the noise of smoke and town,
I watch the twilight falling brown
All around a careless ordered garden,
Close to the ridge of a noble down.
You'll have no scandal while you dine,
But honest talk and wholesome wine.
And only hear the magpie gossip
Garrulous under a roof of pine:
For groves of pine on either hand,
To break the blast of winter stand;
And further on the hoary Channel
Tumbles a billow on chalk and sand."

That's how Alfred, Lord Tennyson, described his life at Farringford in a poem to a friend in 1854. Now the poet laureate's library there has been restored and opened to the public.

From The Guardian, 6 August 2009:

"Although Benjamin Disraeli, Charles Darwin, Lewis Carroll, Giuseppe Garibaldi, and the Queen of Hawaii have been unable to accept the invitation to Lord Alfred Tennyson's birthday party today, his library on the Isle of Wight will again be full of distinguished guests talking of literature, science, and art.

"A private passion for Victorian art has given rise to a new museum at Farringford House, Tennyson's home of 40 years, opening today to mark the bicentenary of the birth of a giant of the Victorian literary scene. Furniture, including his writing desk and chair, and portraits by his friend G. F. Watts – of the poet, his wife, and their sons – have come back to the house for the first time in over a century.

"The poet laureate was an A-list celebrity of his day, hounded by fans. His works, including The Charge of the Light Brigade, Maud, In Memoriam, and his Arthurian cycle, Idylls of the King, were read by millions, recited, painted, sung, and dramatised. He moved to Isle of Wight in 1853 when he was so stalked that he could no longer work in London. But everyone who was anyone followed him there – many as house guests – including politicians, painters, authors, scientists, and royalty.

"The house became a hotel in the early 20th century, owned at different times by both Thomas Cook (of the travel firm) and Sir Fred Pontin (of holiday camp fame). Older islanders, including the craftsman who restored pieces for the exhibition, remember bonfires in the grounds of surviving Victorian furniture, many commissioned by the Tennysons from trees on the estate.

"The hotel was bought three years ago 'on a whim, not a very well-thought-out business plan,' by Martin Beisly, senior expert on Victorian painting at Christie's auction house, and his friend Rebecca Fitzgerald. Beisly was brought up on the Isle of Wight, but didn't start out particularly interested in poetry, never mind Tennyson or crumbling Victorian architecture. 'I really came to Tennyson through painting. Wherever I looked at the painters I loved – Millais, Holman Hunt, Watts – I realised they were completely in awe of Tennyson. The house struck me as like a work of art, too, a painting in urgent need of sensitive restoration.'

"Beisly and Fitzgerald spent the winter making the building watertight before restoring the extension the Tennysons had added to make a party room and a library – with a staircase concealed in the corner so he could flee visitors. The extension was designed by another Tennyson worshipper, the architect of the Natural History Museum in London, Alfred Waterhouse.

"The library (shown below) has been restored to museum display standards, and will house regular exhibitions. With curator Veronica Franklin Gould, an expert on the period, they have secured major loans from national collections, including the Watts Gallery in Compton and the Tennyson Research Centre in Lincoln, which holds the family archives. The paintings, letters, and photographs by his next-door neighbour, the pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron – who kidnapped his most distinguished guests – give a vivid impression of the life of the house.

"Visitors were sometimes overawed: in 1865 Anny Thackeray, daughter of the novelist, herself renowned as an eccentric, wrote: 'Everybody is either a genius or a poet or a painter or peculiar in some way.'

"The islanders were highly entertained by the procession of notables, including Prince Albert leaving with a bunch of primroses from the garden; or Garibaldi, campaigner for Italian unification, in embroidered shirt and scarlet-lined white poncho. They queued to wave to the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, author of Hiawatha (Tennyson also brought him to the village stores to buy tobacco and clay pipes), but clearly every day was as good as a cabaret: Thackeray recorded locals coming to their doors to stare as Tennyson, Watts, and Henry Thoby Prinsep, brother-in-law of Cameron, walked past in sweeping cloaks and giant hats.

"The exhibition includes the throne Tennyson had made of timber from the garden for the widowed Queen Emma of Hawaii when she came to stay for four days in 1865. Photographs include Cameron's portrait of Longfellow. When he escorted the poet to her door, Tennyson warned: 'You will have to do whatever she tells you. I'll come back soon and see what is left of you.'"

Update: "Poet’s home may be forced to close," Isle of Wight County Press Online, 28 August 2009.


Hels said...

Many thanks for that information. I feel for Tennyson and glad he found peace on the Isle of Wight. With regard to Farringford, do you know how much of the house is how it was when the Tennysons lived there, and how much has been changed to meet the needs of a modern hotel?

Art and Architecture, mainly

Anonymous said...

The library at Farringford is finished and back to what it was when Alfred roamed the corridors, including a lot of the original furniture and even a wax model of the man himself, wearing one of his own capes, sitting at his desk reading an open book. The rest of the house is at present being lovingly restored to its former glory, by local craftsmen, and to the specification that Alfred would have recognised, not as a hotel but as a private house. Its, owners hoping to eventually live in it when the restorations are complete. Unfortunately, its not open to the public while these works are in progress but the holiday cottages, golf course and Garden Restaurant in the grounds are open daily.

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